You Have Two Choices: Lead Up or Complain Down

Something going wrong at work? You have 2 options: lead up or complain down.

  • Complaining down is what you do when you think you can’t do anything about your problem. No one listens to you, so you vent.
  • Leading up is when you are less worried about people listening to you and more worried about listening to people.

When you complain down, your morale suffers and the morale of the people around you suffers, too.

Complain to your spouse or friend. Don’t complain in the office. It’s poison. For the people you work with, focus on what you’re going to do to fix the problem.

If someone above you is frustrated, and it comes down on you, don’t be so quick to defend. Listen to them. There’s truth somewhere in what they’re saying.

You will earn their respect by listening instead of defending.

Why? Because it’s the truth! Just because they say it, you feel attacked, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If you think about what’s right, not about the fact that you’re being attacked, you earn their respect, and the “attacks” (their observations, however communicated) will stop.

What’s that, you say? “But you don’t know my boss. You can’t lead up to my boss. My boss cannot be moved!”

If this is your reality, consider two moments in the Scriptures when someone had an option to lead up or complain down.


“For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”Exodus 5:23

Moses is newly appointed in his role, and he is clearly not ready. Here he is complaining to his boss: God.

His’ first efforts at obeying God and trying to lead his people against Pharaoh are by any measure a failure. Pharoah ignores him, and worse, raises the level of toil and suffering the Israelites must endure as a response to their supposed extra time being devoted to worship.

Moses actually made things worse for the people he was supposed to help.

And the fact that he turns and complains to God about the results of his efforts shows that he’s not yet mature as a leader.

Leadership is a burden because the leader must stand in the space of “not yet”.

Complaining undermines the very thing you want to have blossom and grow.

A leader names the vision given by God, even when it has not yet come to pass, and even when obstacles arise.

The leader must stay positive when people complain, or when things take a turn for the worse, especially if it’s because of the leader’s mistakes or efforts.


Much later, after Moses has matured, the opposite happens. The people get tired of waiting for Moses, and wandering in the wilderness, so they decide to take matters into their own hands. Aaron, Moses’ co-leader, does not stop them, but instead facilitates their wishes:

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”Exodus 32:1

This is one of the most tragic moments in Scripture. At the very moment that Moses was up on the mountain representing the people to God and talking about their future, they were betraying the compassion of God and the trust of Moses by their faithlessness.

The way I imagine this played out is that the selfish insecurity of a few people morphed into a mob mentality that swept up everyone, to the point where Aaron lacked the courage to name the truth. Bad socio-political situations happen the same way.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, Moses is talking to God. God says:

“Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “ Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?”Exodus 32:11

This exchange is remarkable, and shows how much that Moses’ character had evolved over the years into being like God’s character. This is the same person who had killed a man earlier in his life, and then who shrunk from his leadership responsibility and complained instead.

Now here – perhaps, finally – God gives Moses an option to let go of the responsibility of leading the people. God promises that He will find new people. And yet, Moses defends them. It is remarkable.

Earlier in his life, Moses would have surely jumped at this offer. But now, Moses has adopted the same sense of steadfast love and faithfulness that characterizes God.

Leadership is not for those with weak character.

Contrast the two leadership responses in the second part of the story. Aaron acts to protect himself, while Moses puts his life on the line for people who don’t deserve it.

And when I say putting your life on the line, Moses is telling God to calm down!

So stop complaining. Don’t tell me you can’t lead up.

Moses led up to God.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).